Richard Hofstadter, one of the finest American historians of the twentieth century, published his essay America As A Gun Culture in the October 1970 issue of American Heritage Magazine.
A kind of proto-Bowling For Columbine, America As A Gun Culture examines the origin of America's fascination with firearms, and their intractability from certain formations of the American character. The statistics, of course, need to be adjusted for inflation, as beholden to their era as Hofstadter's use of the phrase "young blacks," which scans as pretty icky some forty-plus years out. But otherwise, time has only fortified the urgency and conviction of Hofstadter's ideas, and his essay remains an essential piece of cultural and intellectual history. It ends like this:
American legislators have been inordinately responsive to the tremendous lobby maintained by the National Rifle Association, in tandem with gunmakers and importers, military sympathizers, and far-right organizations. A nation that could not devise a system of gun control after its experiences of the 1960's, and at a moment of profound popular revulsion against guns, is not likely to get such a system in the calculable future. One must wonder how grave a domestic gun catastrophe would have to be in order to persuade us. How far must things go?
How far must things go?
It's a question many asked after Columbine. After Aurora. After Newtown, where 26 people were gunned down, 20 of them children. And it's the itch many baffled head-scratchers are attending to today, after Barack Obama's proposition to strengthen legislation around firearms sales and background checks fell six votes short of making it through the Senate, despite polls suggesting that 80 percent of Americans supported it.
In a moving New York Times op-ed, former Arizonan congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords - who, you'll probably remember, survived an assassination attempt after being critically injured by a point-blank gunshot to her head on January 8, 2011 - accused the Senate of giving into fear, buckling under the shadowy threat of National Rifle Association. She called them cowards. She called them self-interested. She called them obstructers of progress. "Shame on them," she said.
The gun lobby that both Hofstadter and Giffords identify is a formidable roadblock en route to a safer, more compassionate America. But there's another boogeyman lurking in gloom: Rights. It's not just the oft-challenged Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which codifies the right to keep and bear arms, but of a (mis)conception of rights themselves, one which seems uniquely and troublingly, for lack of a better word, "American."
In the worst quarters of American culture, rights seem to exist in-and-of themselves. The Second Amendment was devised as a means of opposing state tyranny, when America was dusting itself off after its Revolutionary War against the English. In spirit, the right to bear arms was guaranteed in order to secure the existence of citizen militias, being deemed "necessary to the security of a free state."
The NRA - distorting the constitution, alternatingly ignoring and influencing legal precedent, bending history like burly carnival strongmen - are key players, the key players, in garbling the spirit of the Second Amendment. They seem determined to prove the legal validity of owning personal cache of high-powered assault weapons well after the threat of the King of England barnstorming your Jeffersonian enclave has waned away into the inky ether of history.
(There's also a bizarre structuring irony here. Certain would-be modern Minutemen hold their Second Amendment rights sacrosanct in that most antiquated, citizen's militia way out of fear that if they're not personally armed to the teeth, the federal government will turn on them, storm their houses and personally rob them of their rights. What rights? The right to keep and bear arms. It's like the Culpeper snake noshing on its own tail.)
To hear the NRA speak about it - cloaking their propaganda in good guy v. bad guy rhetoric that gushes from America's gun-centric frontier history, discussed at length by Hofstadter - it's not so much about arms, or even bearing arms, as the right to bear arms. It's rights themselves (a whole Bill of them) that are at the centre of the American character: the legal enshrinement of rights, but not their animating temper. American democracy is built on its rights and, more to the point, on the right to have those rights. It's less about taking away (or restricting access to) guns as taking away (or restricting access to) rights.
But what is a right all on its own? Without its spirit? Without its temper? Exclusive of these things, a right is nothing but text. And text is so easily perverted. The First Amendment's right to freedom of speech was drafted as a measure to ensure a government accountable to its public, one that doesn't quash dissent or restrict religious freedom. As text, this right is wronged, configured to seemingly protect any asshole's imaginary right to be an asshole.
You don't even have to look to America to locate such wrongheaded free speech absolutists. Here in Canada, smirking would-be provocateurs like Ezra Lavant exercise their rights to freedom of speech like an eleven-year old playing with his adolescent cock. Like if you don't actively, and aggressively, use the right, it'll somehow shrivel up and fall off.
This seems to be similarly fallacious logic motivating special-interest groups like the NRA - with any pseudo-Freudian phallic connotations significantly ramped up. If you don't forcefully assert your rights, they'll evaporate, democracy will crumble, and Obama will be ferried to the haberdasher by horse-drawn carriage to be fitted for his new crown.
A more sensible measure of a progressive, liberal (in the non-annoying way) democracy would seem to be not having to flex your rights just for the sake of it, of not resorting to hate speech and invective to prove that certain democracies should stomach it, of not stocking an assault rifle in your broom closet just because you can. The prospect of limiting access to firearms in the United States may fly in the face of some specious textual interpretation of the Constitution. But to leave such a wanton gun culture unrestricted is - to quote Rex Murphy's appraisal of infamous Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel's proposal for refugee status in Canada - "a betrayal of common sense."
This is a culture that is (at least in part, and probably in a very, very large part) responsible for the murder of schoolchildren. Mending it may demand something more rigorous than a legal rejiggering influenced by lobbyists, firearms manufacturers and other special interests, or even well-meaning legislature (though that helps). It demands a thorough reevaluation of what "rights" mean, the ideas they proceed from and the way in which they're most productively enacted - an amendment not of the text but of the spirit.
How far must things go? Much, much further.